The change to Daylight Saving Time has me in a pensive mood this Sunday. Last night, at a book club who’d read my novel, Late One Night, we talked about why people just can’t seem to get the fact that no matter how different we are, we’re all connected. We all share in the responsibility of a common community—the human community. What can writers do, someone asked, to invite more people to consider these facts? Maybe we can tell our stories with specificity and with empathy. Maybe we can dramatize characters and events in a way that invites an examination of how we all have a stake in one another’s actions and fates. No one acts without the ripples of that act spreading out, touching all of us. We’re responsible for one another. We have an obligation. Our lives will be better if all lives are better. In an era when politicians seem to not realize that truth, it’s up to the artists to insist upon it.
My own response to the world’s sadness and confusion is to tell stories. Today, my story is one of time and how it goes. It’s cloudy here in Ohio and balmy in advance of stormy weather moving in this evening. Cooler temps are on the horizon, but for now the day has the feel of early spring.
But I’m thinking of autumn, particularly autumn Sundays in my small hometown of Sumner, Illinois. When I tell someone I’m from a small town, they often are unable to imagine how small. Sumner, during the time I lived there from 1969-1975 had a thousand residents. That’s how small. On Sundays, two sundries stores uptown were open a few hours so people could stop by before or after church to pick up an Evansville Courier or a Vincennes Sun-Commercial. On the west side, near my home, a neighborhood grocery, Perrott’s, was open. That was about it as far as commerce. Sundays were days of church and leisure and family.
And on this autumn day, I’m reminded of the way the dry leaves collected on the sidewalks and how I liked to scuff my feet through them when I walked. I remember the muted light of those days and the sight of lamps burning near windows in the houses I passed, and the smell of leaves from the Saturday raking and burning, maybe even a stray wisp of smoke rising from the ashes in the ditches along the street.
Time slowed down on those Sundays, particularly when there were no friends to be found, no sandlot football games, no one to shoot the breeze with over a furtive smoke, nothing happening anywhere at all. Even the dogs penned in back yards seemed resigned to boredom.
In my house, my father napped. My mother nodded off in her chair, one of the Sunday newspapers open on her lap. Or maybe someone would stop by—friends of my parents, or relatives—just to visit. When I was a teenager, I was bored with their company. Time seemed to drag as we crept toward evening.
Then the twilight came. The streetlights came on. Cars took the curve near our house and their headlights swept through the open drapes and across the walls of the dark front bedroom where I often stood, no lights on, so I could better see out the window as I watched the night fall on our neighborhood.
My mother made grilled cheese sandwiches for supper and opened cans of Campbell’s tomato soup. Or if there was roast beef left from our noon meal, we might have sandwiches, or potato cakes, or even corncakes with fried bologna. After supper, we sat in the living room watching shows on our black and white Zenith television: “Wild Kingdom,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Bonanza,” “The Bold Ones.” My mother popped corn on the stove, and we drank Pepsi Colas. And when the ten o’clock news came, I knew it was nearly time for bed, and another Sunday, so much like the others, was nearly done. Time moving on. The dark coming earlier. The deep dark of winter soon to follow. Days and nights of my family living out its life in this small town. And I never truly appreciated the minutes and the hours. I was too busy being young.
I’d give anything now if I could rise and step through a curtain of time to find my mother at the kitchen stove, if I could hear hers and my father’s voices one more time, if I could gather at the table with them and talk of ordinary things. I was blissfully blind, then, to how time was robbing us. Maybe that’s part of the reason that I write. Maybe I want to call it all back, to reverse time, to save as much of it as I can, to save all the things and all the people I loved even when I was too young and ignorant to know that I cherished them.
So, tonight when dusk comes, and the winds pick up, and the rain arrives, I’ll remember all the details of those Sunday nights with my mother and father—the grilled cheese sandwiches, the television programs, the popcorn, the Pepsi-Colas, and I’ll let the details make me feel a part of them again. We were just an unassuming family in a small town on an autumn night, but let me ask you. Weren’t our fears your fears? Weren’t our dreams yours as well? Weren’t our joys and our sorrows and our resentments and our angers? Weren’t we, like you, human?
Tonight, I’ll let my memories of those autumn nights connect me to the larger world. I’ll keep trying to tell my stories plainly and simply and full of the specific details that make us all human. I’ll keep trying to tell my stories with an awareness of how imperfect we all are, how we all make mistakes, and how, despite that, we all yearn for love, for community. I’ll tell the story of my family on a Sunday night in autumn, and if I do it well enough, my parents will be your parents, and yours, and yours, and I’ll give thanks that once upon a time we were all alive.